Reflections Post-MFA: Or, Should You Get a Degree in This or Not? (Answer: It depends)

So periodically, I see this question comes up online of whether or not a writer should (or shouldn’t) go for an MFA. And there’s always a chorus of replies either for or against, and I always think I’ll chime in, but never do. So instead, I’m just collecting all my unsaid thoughts and reflections on a BA and an MFA in creative writing in a single post, and admittedly, it’s been a few years since I graduated, so everything that follows has a retrospective tinge. This is a long one, so strap in.

First and foremost: no, attending an MFA program will not automatically make you a great writer.

Or, rather—not the way you think. You CAN get things out of an MFA program that WILL make you a stronger writer, a more efficient writer, a more confident writer—and a more precise critic and a more active reader.

In my six years of formal education in creative writing, I wrote just shy of 2 million words. I totted up my word count back when I was graduating from my undergrad, but I didn’t precisely tally what I did for my grad program, but it’s probably around 2 mil. And much of that word count was produced on tight deadlines.

I often joke that my undergrad program was a crucible and my grad program a forge—because for my undergrad, I typically had to produce about 3k-15k a week for four years, often following strict prompts, with little time to revise or edit, so it better be right—or, at least, something I could live with—the first time. I didn’t have the luxury of multiple drafts. I produced a fuck-ton of wordage. Most of it utter garbage, but some of it salvageable. I’ve sold a few short stories I wrote in undergrad to magazines and anthologies, but what my undergrad really did was built up my writing muscles to the point where knocking out a 7k short story following a strict anthology theme prompt a week before the deadline is not hard.

It also built the habit of writing, and now I don’t feel right or comfortable with myself if I haven’t written in a few days (unless I’m pouring my creative juices into some other expression, like painting). Writing is my joy, my happy place, and what I turn to when I’m stressed. Something which I probably could have built up on my own without the undergrad BUT doing the undergrad caused it to happen in a FAR MORE COMPRESSED amount of time. It did have the severe drawback of ridiculous stress and bouts of depression and anxiety that took a few years to work through, but hey.

Grad school had looser deadlines, but a greater focus on honing the edge of my skills and helping me figure out who I am as a writer, what it is I’m trying to do. For that one, it was bizarrely based on page count, not word count, with 30 pages a month, one major 30-something page dissertation paper, and one 120-page minimum thesis.

Basically, in short, the BA and MFA made me work, and it made me learn how to write while having other commitments. I currently have a full time job, am a full time student for another program (in support of the job—will be done in three weeks, woo!), and of my current novel, I’ve written about 130,000 words in less than four months. True, I don’t have many friends I see in person but, hey, pandemic times? Would this regimen work for everyone? Fuck no. It worked for me, but even while having a good end result, it wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable experience. So. What did I learn from those six years of schooling?

1. How to write a lot, and the benefits of quantity over quality. For a very long time, I wrote pulp stories. I embraced that, and wrote a lot, much of it terrible, but a lot of it, not, and on that foundation of what was not, I built my craft. You can get there with quality, it just tends to take longer, and in my personal opinion and experience, it’s easier to get to quality by going through quantity than to get to quantity through quality. Not that it can’t be done, but…easier.

2. Schooling did teach me to “hear” the rhythm and poetry of words. Now, I’m not a poet, but I appreciate the poetic beat—which, by the way, is why I will FIGHT YOU if you say, “high word count? just remove those filler words like ‘that’!” because those “filler” words have a purpose beyond the baseline of creating clarity, they also create rhythm, and I can TELL when something is over-edited. Why? Because it’s arrhythmic. It doesn’t “sound” right to the inner ear. Usually because words have been cut out with a search/find tool, so the sentence rhythm and structure has been changed…but all the sentences surrounding it haven’t, so there’s this discordancy where the sentences don’t mesh. Going to cut out words? Do a full read-through as you do it to make sure your words are still dancing to the music of the whole narrative.

3. How to critique—both how to give it and how to receive it. Most MFA programs are workshop based, and the more you do workshops, the more you learn there are different methods and approaches and which ones work for you (and which ones really don’t). The gift of tons of workshopping hours is that…I’m far less critical. Because I’ve seen that there are so many ways and methods and approaches, I’ve given up the whole idea that there’s a right way to do this. Really, there’s just many ways, and it’s highly individual; what’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you. Which is frustrating, at first, because people tend not to like ambiguities. But, to quote Barbossa, “They’re more like guidelines.” It teaches you how to separate personal taste from the writer’s vision, and refine your ability to give feedback that strives for that vision, rather than what you, personally, would like. Yeah, sure, of course, this isn’t 100%, and critique will never, ever, be truly impartial, but practice helps get you a bit closer.

4. How to receive critique…and not be rocked off course. Schooling helped me figure out what I want from my writing and what I want to do, and taught me how to listen to critique, say thank you, that’s an insightful reading and has give me much to consider…then not act on it at all. Because the critique in question wasn’t helping to further my vision and bring my work closer to what I conceptualized it to be. It helped me figure out what were my hills to die on…and what is just stubbornness and being enamored with my own work. I’m more centered now, more grounded. I have a better idea of what I’m doing and what my intent is, and have learned how to define it, if only to myself.

5. How to reverse engineer other people’s writing! Like, other people talk about how studying writing or becoming a writer ruined books for them and they can’t just read for fun. Au contraire! You can read to reverse engineer and revel in the recognition that someone else is doing something a fuck-ton better than you can…and then you can figure out how they did it and do it for yourself. It isn’t theft! You’re acquiring a new tool for your craft.

6. I’m going to be absolutist and talk about extremes, but there are two kinds of writers: those who love the act of writing and those who love to have written. Of course, this is really a spectrum, and people fall everywhere in it, but the strategies for finishing your work can be different depending on where you fall.

Those who love to have written tend to be more productive when they have deadlines, prompts, and often, an outside force goading them on. Many of these sorts, if they don’t end up finding a community of like-minded writers in their MFA programs, tend to stop writing after getting their degree.

Then there are those who love the act and will do it regardless…but not necessarily see projects to completion. Because they have a thousand ideas, and chase plot bunnies with abandon. They, too, benefit from deadlines and outside forces placing constraints to keep them on track, and after they finish their program, while they may continue to write a fuck-ton, they might struggle to complete things.

So what can MFA programs do? Help you figure out where you are on that spectrum and give you strategies and tools that you can do beyond the program—this might take the form of dedicated spaces, writing goal tools, communities, workshops, a regular submission routine to agents or editors or markets. Whatever fuels you.

And, while we’re on the topic of finishing: yes, finish your shit. Because the more you finish, the more you’re able to recognize the feeling when something is finished. And the easier it becomes to replicate. Also, if your goal is publication, you can’t usually publish something without it being finished. So. Finish things.

7. Rules are bullshit. No, really. They don’t actually exist. EXCEPT! When you’re starting out, you NEED the rules, because the rules create context which, until you get more experience, you’re not going to have. So rules = necessary, but also rules = illusionary. When it stops shoring you up and giving structure and instead starts stifling and constricting you, and you find yourself having to do writerly gymnastics to get around it, jettison it. You don’t need it anymore.

8. The philosophy of “Fuck it.” It’s so very freeing to reach a point where you just yeet all those rules into the very sun and scream, “Fuck it!” and do what you want. Also, writing, like any art, doesn’t end. You always have a new bar to strive for, a new goal. Which…can be intimidating and defeating, at first. But eventually, you might, like me, come to the conclusion that it’s a hell of a lot more fun if there’s no level cap.

So are MFA programs necessary? Of course not. And they tend to be very expensive, and for the most part, if you are driven and dedicated and have the support—either from yourself, from those around you, from a larger writing community—you can easily replicate the lessons an MFA program can teach you for free—or nearly so. But is it worthless? Also, no. But the caveat is, you tend to get back what you put in. Although, if you’re willing to go $20k into debt with student loans, I hope you’re willing to put in the effort. ‘Cause with that kind of money, you could instead take out a loan for a good car…

Would I trade my BA and MFA? No. Because they worked for me. However, I do want to note that while I do have some short stories published and regularly submit to agents, editors, and markets, I haven’t sold a book, I don’t have an agent, and I’m not popular. So having a degree in this is not going to guarantee you success or a book deal or whatever. That’s a separate, though closely parallel, thing. Same way attending that prestigious workshop isn’t going to get you a book deal, either. It can, however, help you build a community, a network of fellow writers and, sometimes, agents and editors. It can help you get perspective not just on your work, but also the industry.

But, honestly, as stressful and intense as it can be, MFAs and workshops and classes can also be fun. ‘Cause you’re basically in a room with a bunch of people with brains that work like yours, that see stories and patterns and the rhythm of words, and are bursting with ideas and characters and plots and metaphors. You ain’t alone, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, my nearly two thousand words of two cents. Congrats! You made it here (and I honestly have no idea why you put up with me…?). Have a cookie. 🍪

Cross-posted on Reddit, thus, the Reddit cookie emoji.

Fantasy, Armies, and Economics

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

Today, I want to talk fantasy. And epic armies. And economics.

Yes, they connect.

First off, I have no expert knowledge in this subject. I’m neither an economist nor do I have a military background of any sort. But I read a lot of fantasy, and I write a lot of fantasy, and recently, I’d been mulling on the topic of fantasy warfare when I’d realized an army in a book I was reading had no food. Which then spun off to other musings, and things (namely, my suspension of disbelief) started crumbling. While this…discussion…is more aimed at epic and grimdark fantasy, it can also be applied to military science fiction and more battle-oriented space opera (though I’ve noticed that military sci-fi tends to be more realistic about the, uh, monetary cost of war). Anyway. Onward!

If you, dear reader, intend to introduce some warfare on a grand scale into your fantasy world, I would like to remind you of a few things:

Armies are big.

Armies are expensive.

Armies eat a fuck-ton of food.

They also, as a whole, move very, very slowly. Mobilizing an entire army and having it move, say, twenty miles is an undertaking. Namely because of supply trains. Because your big-ass fantasy army (which shall be, from now on, referred to as the BAFA) is really made up of thousands of people, and if those people are marching and burning calories, they’re gonna need to eat to replace all that energy expended, especially if you want them to then fight when they get to wherever they’re going (I’m not even bringing up the issue of clean drinking water).

L5dSqUwBut it’s not just food. It’s supplies. It’s equipment. It’s (if you have cavalry) all the horses’ tack and their grooms. It’s all those damn tents. The bedrolls. The cookware for preparing all the aforementioned food (unless you’re going to make them all march on hardtack…expect lower moral). Oh, and all the army’s support staff (the blacksmiths, the quartermasters, the cooks, the grooms, the healers/medical personnel, the engineers for the siege equipment, the army administrators—all the logistical supply for the logistical supply). Armies are big. And bulky. And cumbersome. And, when everything is moving in concert with all its various parts, starts to feel insurmountable. When taken as a whole.*

It’s still made up of individuals.

Who also, if they’re doing this as a mode of employment, like to be paid. Where are you getting all the gold necessary to fund this? Honestly, this is usually why my suspension of disbelief starts to waver when the BAFAs come out. If the writer hasn’t built a believable economy, I start to question where the funds are coming from. By the way, you know what’s more expensive than armies? Countries. Good lord, those are giant money-sinks. But back to the armies.

It’s possible they may be unpaid, untrained conscripts. Expect some wholesale slaughter if they’re up against a superior force. Also, expect a lot of desertion. However, a few epic fantasies I’ve read lately have been going the route of religious fanaticism to keep their unpaid, untrained constricts standing in lines. …okay. You can have that once, maybe twice, but seriously, it’s starting to get lazy, imo. And they never seem to fall apart quite as frequently nor in the same way as they do in history…

So. Either you are paying your army or your conscripting them. There’s also a third option: pillage-as-pay (or raiding).

viking-army-fantasy-art-7-4kNow, if you’re going to go down the pillage-as-pay route, there’s one inherent flaw: if there’s no pillaging, there’s no pay. If the food, supplies, and money for your army is going to come from the people you’re invading, all the invadees have to do is set fire to their fields and starve you out. You’ll likely run out of supplies long before they run out of country to flee over. Aaaaaand then you have issues of low moral.

(Seriously. It’s like a giant game of Oregon Trail here.)

Let’s say you don’t want to invade. Instead, you’re on the defending side, fighting back the invasion with a standing army. That still costs. They still need housing. They still need to eat. Else you’re going to get the low moral problem.

Low moral, by the way, means people start to resent you. And people who resent you are difficult to convince to go fight and die on your behalf.**

Now, stepping sideways into a specific example, and something that’s been lately bugging me.

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Poniatowski’s Last Charge at Leipzig Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

Cavalry.

Fantasy writers, please stop misusing cavalry. I know, I know, it looks dramatic in the mind’s eye to line your cavalry up with all their shining armor and lances, and have them suicide-charge against the enemy’s cavalry. Cue flashing weapons, crunching armor, horse squeals, and sprays of blood.

Remember what I was saying about armies being expensive? Cavalry is really expensive. Not only do you have to train your soldier to ride and fight from horseback, you need to train the horse…and horses are not cheap. So you’ve got food, housing, animal care, training plus room and board, training, and arming/outfitting for the human (oh, and pay), and this is just one cavalry-person. Fantasy likes to have cavalry numbering in the hundreds upon hundreds, and every one of them costs.

Are you seriously going to throw your cavalry into certain death? Or are you going to keep them in reserve and, if desperate, dismount your cavalry and have them fight on foot? Save the horse for when you actually need a horse—say, for when you need forces to go from point A to point B quickly, or when you need speed for engaging/disengaging, such as having them to flank and harry the sides of a force.

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And while we’re on the topic of cavalry, what about anti-cavalry? Where are the damn pikes? The spears? The pointy-things partially made for downing horses? And what about anti anti-cavalry? I don’t quite remember who said it, but I know it was at a GenCon panel a few years ago, but someone pointed out that those big heavy claymores? Those are for lopping the ends off of pikes so they don’t impale your cavalry. Now, I recognize this needs citation to be accurate, but if it is, where are the claymores?

Warfare seems, at least to my eyes, to be weapons and counter-weapons (and armor, and tactics). There should be depth to war strategy (honestly, this is why I usually avoid writing from the viewpoints of generals; it can be hard to grasp the stakes when we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people being moved this way and that on a map).

Though it’s a common thing to poke at in fantasy, I will also reiterate that horses aren’t machines. There’s a few wonderful series of articles about horses and fantasy on Tor.com, and I highly recommend taking a gander.

Also, a bit older, but this article on Fantasy-Faction about building fantasy armies might be worth a look while you’re at it.


* We’re talking whole armies here, not skirmishes/raiding parties. Smaller groups can get away with less support.
**While, yes, if we’re talking fantasy, there could be other ways to compel an army to fight, such as through magical means. However, this can lead to the army becoming just a homogenized lump of faceless humanity and little more than a prop to introduce conflict into the narrative.

If anyone knows who did the other three images, I’d love to be able to properly attribute them.

A Month of Books: August

Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold: Reread! Because, for some reason, this time around, I’m reading the whole of the Vorkosigan Saga backward? The series is one of my comfort reads and, when I have no idea what to read next, I pick one up and start reading ’cause I know I’ll enjoy it. Every time through, I come away with new things to analyze. This time, it was plot structure.

The Writer’s Book of Doubt by Aidan Doyle: A bit of a cheat, I suppose, seeing that I haven’t finished it yet, so this semi-review will be truncated, but it’s so far been worth taking the extra time with. Most of the essays are based on blog posts, so tend to be short, but at the same time, since they’re based on concise blog posts, also have a lot of thoughts and information to unpack. And it’s a broad swathe of different topics relating to writing, self-doubt, and the parts (pleasant, unpleasant, and everything in between) of being a creative in a field that depends so much on audience interaction and how to make your way, ranging from hobbyist to professional. Though mostly geared toward writers, quite a bit of it, I think, is applicable to other art forms, so it might be worth a look for non-writers too. Highly recommended (and I haven’t even finished it yet!).

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold: *squeeeee* More Penric and Des! I had no idea this released last month (I was a bit distracted) but it makes a wonderful surprise gift in the middle of August. As usual, the new installment of Penric and Desdemona is a joyful delight. Interestingly Pen swears a great deal in this one (true, he is having a very bad day) and he and Des get to go full-chaos-demon/sorcerer on a bunch of pirates–which is definitely the most chaos they’ve indulged in on-screen (I think), and it is glorious. On a writing-craft note, this is an excellent example of ramping-up complications. Every single time Pen has a plan, everything goes completely wrong and he ends up having to come up with another plan…which also goes wrong.

Heart of Fire by Bec McMaster: I’m on a romance-roll, it appears. Also, people with the name “McMaster”? Anyway, romance! And dragons! A combination I haven’t had much experience reading, but now I wonder…why have I not? This was a recommendation from a friend (whose reading tastes and my own often align) and I was not steered wrong! Honestly, a delight to read, Freyja and Rurik’s dialogue/banter is a blast, but most of all, they seem to be having so much fun. There’s an element here of play. Their banter is, often, funny to read, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves, and when the joke is at the other’s expense, it’s consensually at the other’s expense. I like my romances sweet or funny, and this one is both sweet and funny. Also, dragons. It’s interesting though that while the characters get their HEA, the end leaves much unresolved; the pair seem set up for another adventure together, and it’s heavily hinted that even though they have their HEA, they’re going to meet with conflict for their choice later…but the series is constructed as a romance series, meaning the next book will focus on a different couple. But I have downloaded the next so…

Firefly: The Unification War, Part One by Greg Pak, Dan McDaid, Marcelo Costa: Oh, hey, comic! I usually read comics/graphic novels in mass binges when the series is complete (or near completion), but in this case, it was sitting on the New Books shelf at my library and caught my eye. Amusing and entertaining, though I think, if I read any of these in future, I’ll watch the show just before so I can have the character/actor voices in my head. I think it’ll add another dimension.